Thursday, August 14, 2014

Unity in and among Diversity (Overview): Four Levels of Voluntary and Intentional Engagement, But Still Limited

Community, not Conformity.
Unity in and among our diversity as congregations and communities doesn’t just happen. Much less can we simply state that it exists, without personally committing to making it a reality. I explored this in the Introduction to this series (June 28, 2014), noting the necessity of looking beyond the “indicative” (“we are one because we are all in Christ,” or “because we live in the same community,” etc.) to the “imperative” (“we must work intentionally at being one with one another”).
Diversity? Or US in greater density?

But with so much negative experience in most of our lives, both at the hands of “others” and as a result of seeking unity with others, how do we do that?
In a recent post, Paul Louis Metzger notes, regarding racial reconciliation in particular, that those within the dominant culture hold the greater responsibility to lead in “going down that rabbit hole of racial tension.” (You can find his full post here: I’m not sure that I can agree with Dr. Metzger, especially given Paulo Freire’s insistence that legitimate change can only be initiated by those exploited and oppressed by the dominant class. I find more resonance in Dr. Metzger’s conclusion that “Loving mutuality is essential.” And yet, the question remains, “How?”
I would like to believe that a universal depth of relationship, “the universal sibling-hood of all humankind,” is possible among all our diversity as individuals, groups, communities, congregations, and other categories. But I have found that the intentional, voluntary identification I seek to establish with others has its limitations. From my own observations and experiences, I would suggest that there are four levels of intentional, voluntary identification with others: Sympathy, Compassion, Empathy, and Solidarity.
Collaboration assumes common goals.
In explaining these levels however, I offer two “caveats” (“grains-of-salt” warnings about my personal limitations in both perspective and presentation). First, I acknowledge that my definitions may not match yours, and that many use these (especially the first two) four terms interchangeably. Second, my aim may be too high. I want to describe levels of identification that are independent from temporary evaluations of our personal costs and benefits. For example, a relationship initiated in conflict may reach a depth that continues even when the conflict has been understood, addressed, and concluded. I want to allow for both rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep, even where we have been tempted to rejoice at another’s weeping, and to have wept at another’s rejoicing.
In pursuing unity in and among our diversity, then, I believe we must differentiate among the following four levels: Sympathy, Compassion, Empathy, and Solidarity. Here’s what I understand those terms to mean.
  • Sympathy – “To feel for” others allows only a limited identification with others’ experience, and is expressed most often only briefly and verbally (sometimes only in the words of Hallmark) before returning to one’s own personal concerns.
  • Compassion – “To feel toward” others involves both identifying with and engaging others’ experience, and is still expressed in a brief and limited manner, but with some tangible action toward the other’s needs.
  • Empathy – “To feel with” others requires having experienced similar circumstances, and involves expressing our identification through sharing the knowledge and/or wisdom we’ve gained, and often providing practical assistance known to have been helpful to us in our prior circumstances.
  • Solidarity – “To feel as” others requires us to identify fully with others by choosing to experience their circumstances alongside them, and is only rarely expressed, largely because of the impossibility of investing significant resources, time, energy, and other elements in more than one given community at a time.

Why is Violet always ostracized?
I will address each of these levels in detail over the coming weeks, but there are also two other terms that should be more fully defined here.  
  • Unity – As I explored in the “Introduction” post in this series, unity requires an intentional, voluntary identification with others. This is so, despite the fact that we often dismiss the impressive depth and breadth of the second important term to consider: “Diversity.”
  • Diversity – We underestimate the ways in which we differ from one another, both as individuals and as groups. Any discussion of diversity must allow for the vast array of traits, backgrounds, experiences, passions, and other elements of “otherness” that precludes any individual or group from readily identifying with any other, or one another, much less all others.

Again, in the upcoming posts on this topic (all of which will begin with “Unity in and among Diversity” so that they will be more easily found among the other topics I cover), I hope to explain clearly how we can pursuing unity, not despite our diversity, but, more authentically and effectively, in and among our diversity.

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